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The charm of Christopher Morley’s first novel, Parnassus on Wheels, lies in its improbability. It’s a romance whose middle-aged lovers are a plump spinster and a gingery, opinionated, itinerant bookseller. It’s a slow-motion road trip, by horse-drawn wagon. It’s a book with the easy rhythms of rural life that features a couple of fistfights and a last-minute rescue. Most of all, like much of Morley’s work, it’s a love song to the redemptive power of books and reading, presented by a wry, commonsensical narrator who tells us right off the bat, on the first page, that while she loves books, she’s also seen “lots of good, practical folk spoiled by too much fine print.” Helen McGill, Morley’s improbably charming heroine, adds that Gutenberg, the German inventor of the first printing press, “launched a lot of troubles on the world.”
The long career of Helen’s creator, Christopher Morley, was equally quirky and improbable. He was an example of a species that scarcely exists anymore, the jack-of-all-trades literary gentleman, proficient in any number of genres, but not necessarily exceptional in any of them. In his astonishingly prolific career, he published twelve novels, fourteen collections of poetry, sixteen volumes of essays, a number of plays, and countless reviews. His literary career stretched from 1912, when he published his first volume of poetry, until 1955, two years before his death, when he published his last. His career coincided with those of some of the greatest American writers of the twentieth centuryincluding William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis, Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and T. S. Eliot, to name a fewand while Morley’s work is not considered as ground-breaking or important as theirs, he was, during his day, a popular and well-respected writer. His novel Thunder on the Left, a dark fantasy about childhood and death, was considered unusual and even shocking upon its first publication in 1925, and his novel Kitty Foyle (1939), a frank first-person account of a tough working-class woman, was a best seller and was made into a popular film starring Ginger Rogers, who won an Academy Award for her performance.
But Morley was arguably more important as an editor, anthologist, reviewer, and all-around champion of literature than he was as a writer himself. Born in 1890 in Haverford, Pennsylvania, to English parents, he attended Haverford College and studied as a Rhodes scholar at New College, Oxford, before moving to New York in 1913. He started his literary career as a publicist and book representative for the firm of Doubleday, and he carried his enthusiasm for books and literature into his more important subsequent work as an editor and reviewer. He helped to found The Saturday Review and wrote a column for the magazine from 1924 until 1941. He was also one of the five original board members of the Book-of-the-Month Club, for whose monthly newsletter he wrote hundreds of reviews; he was one of the founders of the Baker Street Irregulars, the society devoted to the appreciation of the Sherlock Holmes stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; and he was the editor of two editions of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. Through these activities, and his countless reviews and essays, Morley carried on his work as a popularizer and proselytizer of books he admired, helping to promote the reputations of many writers, including the American poet Walt Whitman and the great Polish-British novelist Joseph Conrad. His reviews were not literary criticism in the dry, academic sense, but more along the lines of one friend saying enthusiastically to another, “You’ve got to read this book.” And this missionary passion for promoting good books was evident right from the start of his career, in his first novel, Parnassus on Wheels (1917).
It is an odd first novel for a twenty-seven-year-old New Yorker with an expensive education. Many first novels are thinly disguised autobiographies, and even when they aren’t, they tend to be rather brash, world-beating affairs, meant to show off the talent, brains, and acute sensitivity of their young authors. Yet apart from a few children, nobody in Parnassus on Wheels is younger than thirty-five and only a couple of them are under forty. What’s more, the setting is not the glittering literary world of Manhattan, but the farms, villages, and back roads of New England. Even more remarkably, the narrator is not an ambitious young man, but a never-married thirty-nine-year-old woman whose wry intelligence and unsentimental wit are belied by the narrow horizons of her life.
Helen McGill is the younger sister of Andrew McGill, the eccentric author of a series of books about the joys of rural New England life. The only remaining members of “an unsuccessful family,” Andrew and Helen have been living together on a farmdeliberately vague and fictionalized, the setting of the book seems to be the part of Connecticut nearest the Long Island Soundand they have been living a much less gothic version of the sort of bachelor-brother, spinster-sister arrangement one might find in a Brontë novel. And they were happy, too, at least according to Helen in the opening pages of the book:
We became real farmers, up with the sun and to bed with the same. Andrew wore coveralls and a soft shirt and grew brown and tough. My hands got red and blue with soapsuds and frost; I never saw a Redfern advertisement from one year’s end to another, and my kitchen was a battlefield where I set my teeth and learned to love hard work.
Happy, that is, writes Helen, “until Andrew got the fatal idea of telling the world how happy we were.” Andrew’s book about their bucolic paradise becomes a surprise best seller, quickly followed by another, and soon Helen finds herself looking after a famous author and running the farm while he takes off for weeks at a time to do research. When a pamphlet about her brother calls her “a rural Xanthippe,” after the notoriously shrewish wife of the Greek philosopher Socrates, Helen decides “to give Andrew some of his own medicine.” Given the context of the times, when feminists in Britain and America were agitating for the right to vote, and the New Womani.e., the independent womanwas the subject of plays, novels, and essays (alternately frightened and enthusiastic), one might be tempted to view Helen’s discontent as feminist, but that might be stretching the point. Certainly she thinks it’s unfair that her headstrong brother gets to run all over the countryside while she cooks, cleans, and runs the farm back home, but as intelligent, stubborn, and independent-minded as Helen is, she’s not interested in overturning the social ordershe just wants some time to herself.
As it happens, her opportunity comes along at just the right moment, in the person of Roger Mifflin and his horse-drawn bookshop, Parnassus on Wheels. In a novel full of cleverly sketched rustic caricatures, Roger is the most colorful character of all. A former schoolteacher, he has given up the classroom, but he hasn’t given up teaching. The name of his rolling bookshopafter Mount Parnassus in Greece, the mythological source of all poetry and literatureshows that it’s not so much a business as it is a mission. An excitable and sometimes pugnacious little guy with, as Helen notes, “the bright eyes of a fanatic,” Mifflin has a passion that borders on the obsessive for getting the right books into the hands of the farm families and small-town residents who are his chief customers. It’s not about the money, it’s about improving the world one book and one reader at a time.
“When you sell a man a book,” says Roger,you don’t sell him just twelve ounces of paper and ink and glueyou sell him a whole new life. Love and friendship and humour and ships at sea by nightthere’s all heaven and earth in a book, a real book I mean. Jiminy! If I were the baker or the butcher or the broom huckster, people would run to the gate when I came byjust waiting for my stuff. And here I go loaded with everlasting salvationyes, ma’am, salvation for their little, stunted mindsand it’s hard to make ’em see it. That’s what makes it worthwhileI’m doing something that nobody else from Nazareth, Maine, to Walla Walla, Washington, has ever thought of. It’s a new field, but by the bones of Whitman it’s worthwhile. That’s what this country needsmore books!
It’s another sign of Roger’s bibliomania that the only reason he wants to sell Parnassus and walk away from his literary crusade is so that he can write his own book. And it’s part of the improbable charm of this light romance that Helen can only leave one bibliomaniac by taking up with another who’s even more book mad than her brother. Helen’s bid for freedom isn’t as decisive or shocking as Nora slamming the door as she leaves her husband at the end of Henrik Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House. Rather, Helen’s motivation for buying Parnassus is as much to keep the wagon, with all its books and its potential for freedom from responsibility, away from her brother, as it is to purchase freedom for herself. After all, it’s not Helen but Roger who points out the possibility of feminist payback in buying his business: “If you’re so afraid of your brother taking a fancy to her, why don’t you buy her yourself and go off on a lark? Make him stay at home and mind the farm!”
Indeed, her sudden decision to buy Roger’s business harks back to the headstrong heroines of Thomas Hardy’s novels, or even to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. One might say that this meeting of oppositesa plump, introverted woman and a wiry little extrovertis a little like the meeting of Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester, minus the mad wife in the attic, of course, and the pervading sense of doom. It might be even better to say that Helen and Roger’s first scene together is what screenwriters call a “cute meet,” when an ostensibly incompatible (and sometimes even hostile) man and woman meet in a funny, improbable way, but leaving little doubt as to the outcome of the story.
Of course, their alliance at the beginning is only temporaryRoger only means to accompany Helen for a day or two, to show her how to run the business and maintain the wagonand what happens after that, as one complication after another ensues on the back roads and village greens of Connecticut, only adds to the unlikely charm of this novel. If it’s a love story roughly along the lines of Jane Eyre, it’s Jane Eyre litenobody dies, nobody is blinded, and nobody’s house burns down. What dramatic tension there is comes from Helen’s brother’s anger at her disappearance, and his conviction that Roger is taking advantage of her somehow. There are also some scenes of mild suspense, as Helen and Roger take turns rescuing each other from a couple of dicey situations. The way Morley ties up all his loose ends at the finish of the book is, again, charmingly but casually contrived, as if he realizes that no one, least of all the reader, was in any doubt as to how the novel would turn out.
But the plot of Parnassus on Wheels, such as it is, isn’t really the point. Part of the point is for author Morley to voice through the outspoken bookseller Roger Mifflin his own opinions, large and small, about literature in general and certain authors in particular, taking wicked pleasure along the way in puncturing the reputations of a number of popular authors of the day who are long forgotten now, but also at least two canonical giants as well, Walt Whitman and Henry James. (These rants of Roger’s and Morley’s about books and the publishing industry are continued, in more depth and rather more heatedly, in the sequel to Parnassus on Wheels, The Haunted Bookshop, which Morley published two years later.)
But in the end, much of the pleasure of reading Parnassus on Wheels lies in the slow, autumnal rhythm of Parnassus itself, pulled by the horse, Peg, and followed by Roger’s dog, Bock, as it rumbles and creaks at five miles an hour over the unpaved roads of New England, circa 1917, related in a gently evocative prose:
In the gathering gloom we plodded along, as happy as a trioor quartet, if you include fat, cheery old Pegas any on this planet. Summer was over, and we were no longer young, but there were great things before us. I listened to the drip of the rain, and the steady creak of Parnassus on its axles. I thought of my “anthology” of loaves of bread and vowed to bake a million more if Roger wanted me to.
It’s the same rhythm as Helen and Roger’s improbable and unexpected courtship, as two middle-aged characters who have had no expectation or even hope of romance until now, and who fall in love while talking about books. “Reader, I married him,” Helen might very well have said, if Jane Eyre hadn’t said it first.
James Hynes is the author of three novels, The Lecturer’s Tale, Kings of Infinite Space, and The Wild Colonial Boy, and a book of novellas, Publish and Perish.